Mountains. But with Piedmont food.

February 24, 2009

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That’s my stipulated answer to the question: mountains or beach? Because you’ve gotta be one, right?

I love Asheville, North Carolina. Tim and I lived there, for a little over a year, back in 2001-2002. It was there we met some of our nearest and dearest friends, there we fell in love with living right smack dab in the middle of mountains. The town is full of nostalgia for me; but it has changed much in the years since we left, losing some of its edge and becoming frightfully polished (in some ways). But I left part of my heart there when we left, and when I get to go back — usually a couple times a year — my soul still heaves an almost audible sigh of contentment as I drive around the curve on I-240 and get my first glimpse of the small city. It just feels better to be there. I don’t know why. But that’s the only way to describe it.

This weekend, it was even better, because I was there with the explicit purpose of spending time with friends who I wish I could see more often; we all live in different cities now (just one remains in Asheville, though we all met there), and the times we can be together are few and far between. My friend Sonja has a husband who generously offered to take himself and their two children out of town for the weekend so that we could fill the house with all of our estrogen and compulsions (a summary of how he put it). There was only one boy — my friend Megan’s four-month old. He and my Wee One hit it off marvelously, in that way that infants generally do (i.e., completely oblivious to each other). Not only was I in one of my favorite places with some of my favorite people, but it also managed to snow a little. Snow — it’s that fluffy white stuff that falls from the sky in places other than Athens, Georgia. There were only a couple of disappointments this weekend: my little one’s nasty cold (she’s still recovering), and our dinner out.

We had a sitter for one night — Saturday. We discussed our options, and finally landed on trying a new restaurant. There had been murmurings of praise from the locals for a new place (how new? who knows), Limones. We took a look at the website, and it sounded promising; the head chef is from Mexico City, then trained in San Fransisco in French-inspired California cuisine. Sounded good to me; I’ve harped many times on the loss of Lula in Knoxville, and the concept and flavors rang that bell. The reservations were made.

The restaurant was quite cozy in its renovated early-20th-century shotgun storefront downtown. No sombreros hanging from the rafters; just warm wood-tones and mirrored walls. Atmosphere? Check. Our local friend raved about the margaritas, so we decided to try a couple different ones; a classic, and a blood-orange. Before they arrived, our server brought us a plate of thick slices of an airy, salty white dinner bread, with a side dish of herbed olive oil.

Hmmm… okay. I’m cool with fusion. Was a bit looking forward to a homemade salsa, but sure. Knock your French-Californian socks off.

The four of us discussed our plan of attack, munched on our olive oil and bread, and when the margaritas arrived, pounced. The blood-orange margarita was divine. It had the classic citrus that we all love in that drink, but with a sweeter twist. I wasn’t as impressed with the traditional lime margarita; something in it reminded me of a mix. I’ve been much more impressed with my margarita with Kristin, or the ones made by Scott and Cassia, homemade-margarita-makers-extraordinaire.

The plan was to split a few appetizers and a couple entrées. Sonja and I, as the only meat-eaters in the group, would share a BBQ Pork Quesadilla with Hot-Sweet cabbage relish, and Megan and Cass would enjoy the meatless Sweet Potatoe-Truffle Empanadas with tomato-Serrano jam. In addition, Megan and I shared an order of Plantains and Guacamole (how I love, LOVE plantains — maduros, or sweet ones, as opposed to the chip-like tostones. They are really very easy to make; I’ll post on them someday).

So everything arrived; and all was well-received. I didn’t get to taste the empanadas, but our BBQ Pork quesadilla was really quite nice. It could have used a bit more of the cabbage relish, and the pork filling seemed to be heaped in the middle of the tortillas, leaving for skimpy last bites, but overall it was quite delicious. I tucked away in the mental roladex to try something similar at home. The plantains were solid, but nothing dramatic; classic sweet maduros, with homemade(?) tortilla chips and good (albeit straightforward) guacamole. First course? Check. Things were on track.

For the main course, the vegetarians were going to split a Wild Mushroom and eggplant Chile relleno with ricotta, jicama salad, carrot-habanera sauce, cumin-lime crema and pineapple-ginger salsa. My side of the table ordered a Cornmeal N.C. Trout with papaya crab salsa, haricot verts and carrot habanero sauce. And here, my friends, is where the meal went downhill faster than a 401K. Just a look at our trout was foreshadowing for disappointment; a very large fillet of fish, coated in cornmeal, sitting on a bed of white rice, with a tiny mound of something on top, and a very skimpy swirl of something on the edges of the plate. I’ve plated prettier dishes for my five-year-old on a Tuesday night. The visual proportions were totally wrong; would flavor proportions fare any better? Indeed they did not. It pretty much tasted like shake-and-bake trout sitting on a bed of white rice. No complexity, no spice, nothing remotely interesting. I didn’t speak at first, wanting to avoid ruining my friend’s potential enjoyment by a verbal subjective slam. But she ate, looked at me, and spoke the verdict I was thinking. There’s just not much to this (or something to that effect). Indeed, there was not. There was a conspicuous lack of visual appeal, flavor, and creativity. What a disappointment.

I watched for a reaction from the other side of the table, where the wild mushroom relleno was being tested. Its consumers had a similar reaction as mine; their tastebuds were being handed sheer boredom. I had a hard time understanding how a dish could achieve such mediocrity with a name so long; but then went back to my dish, and quickly decided the question wasn’t worth my effort. Especially since it would take most of my energy to finish dinner.

The killer was that a few minutes later, I heard our server at a nearby table, recommending the trout. I fought off the urge to stand up, walk over, and ask her to tell me what exactly she liked about it. Was it the fact that it was indisputably a fish? Because that’s about all it had going for it. We thankfully were able to spare the table next to ours; one patron saw that we had the trout, and asked us how we liked it, as she was considering it. We urged her to revisit the menu, and not to bother with the rellenos, either.

I have to say: not many things in this world are more frustrating to me than expensive food that is done poorly.

As you can imagine, we skipped desert. The night before, I had stayed home with a sleeping baby while the rest of the girls had gone to hear some music at the Grove Arcade. On the way home, they stopped at French Broad Chocolate Lounge, and picked up some delights: a cup of hot chocolate with cayenne pepper, and a quartet of truffles — lavender, strawberry and balsamic, orange, and raspberry. All of the above were delicious; we were in agreement that the favorite truffle was lavender (I hear from Rebecca that they serve lavender hot chocolate as well — that’ll be my choice next time). We briefly considered a second swing-by, but after such a disappointing dinner, my appetite was somewhat deflated, and the only thing that beckoned me was the half-full bottle of red wine that awaited us at the house.

So, about the title. The Piedmont is the geographic area where Athens is located. It is part of a same-title region that encompasses more of the South than northeast Georgia, an area bordered on the north by the Appalachian mountains, and on the east by the coastal plains. In general, I’m not fond of the Piedmont; it’s just not the mountains, and remember in the first paragraph when I said that I left part of my heart there? The relatively flat Piedmont just can’t compete. Except for the food, the food in this town that I love. What will I do when I have to leave this place, and leave these eateries, these glorious options, behind?

Why can’t Athens have mountains? Or four seasons? Or on the flip-side, why not convince Hugh or Peter to take their business to Asheville, and while they’re at it, find my husband a job there? Maybe, because then, there would exist too perfect a place. And then, I might have to find something new to complain about.

Because it’s all about me, you know.

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